This Rising Art Star Wants You to Feel, Not Just Look

Trevor Yeung may be a visual artist but his art isn’t limited to the ocular. “As an artist who makes installations, my art isn’t only about the visual – it’s about the experience,” he says. “Visitors who come to my exhibitions can see my work, but maybe they can also feel it, they can also smell it. It is still visual, but I’m always thinking about more than that.” 

This ambition to stimulate multiple senses underpins three major exhibitions that Yeung is opening around the world over the next few months. From now until early 2024, Yeung’s work is being featured in the Sigg Prize 2023, a group exhibition at Hong Kong’s M+ museum showcasing the work of six artists from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan – one of whom will win the prestigious award and a HK$500,000 cash prize. Just a few days after the ribbon-cutting of that exhibition, Yeung will be in London, where on September 28 he is opening Soft Ground a solo show at Gasworks, which will be his most ambitious exhibition to date and his first solo show in the UK. After debuting at Gasworks, the show will travel to Para Site in Hong Kong next March, then to Aranya Art Centre in Beijing. Finally, in April 2024, Yeung will represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, arguably the most important contemporary art event in the world.

“The projects are getting bigger and bigger, there’s more responsibility than before,” says Yeung. “I’m excited, but there is some anxiety.” 

Since he had his first solo show here in 2011, Yeung has received curatorial and critical acclaim for making thought-provoking installations that use plants to explore human relationships. Yeung first became interested in plants while he was at university, when he kept a Venus flytrap in his dorm room because pets were forbidden in student accommodation. As Yeung looked after this plant, he reflected on how its existence was governed by the care that he provided. Yeung watered and fed the plant. He moved it in and out of the light. When necessary, he pruned it. The more he did this, the more Yeung reflected on how these acts of care were also systems of control. His actions were defining this plant’s life, which led him to think more broadly about how his actions might be shaping other people and how other people were influencing him. Inspired, he began using plants in his art to reflect on the invisible strings that pull individuals, communities and societies together – or apart. 

Yeung works on both monumental and miniscule scales. At the Art Basel Hong Kong fair earlier this year, he hung 13 live money trees from the ceiling of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to make his installation Mr. Cuddles Under the Eave (2021). Some of the trees hung upright, while others tilted sideways, awkwardly frozen in mid-air. While visitors were forced to look upwards to see that enormous installation hanging unnervingly over their heads, some of Yeung’s other works require people to kneel to get a closer look. At the same fair in 2022, Blindspot Gallery — which has worked with Yeung for nearly a decade — exhibited Night Mushroom Colon (Twelve), part of an ongoing series of tiny light sculptures plugged into sockets at floor level that have lifelike (but plastic) luminescent mushrooms sprouting from them. By making people look up and down, stand up and crouch, Yeung forces visitors to reflect on their surroundings.

But Yeung’s works are always about people as well as place. The suspended trees of Mr. Cuddles Under the Eave are a metaphor for the experience of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, when billions of people put their lives on hold and avoided human contact. While the trees hang individually, the colourful straps holding them in place intertwine, hinting at the emotional connections that sustained people during this period of physical isolation. The series Night Mushroom Colon was inspired by the night lights that are put in children’s rooms when they’re scared of the dark, so are illustrations of people’s desire to feel less alone. Like much of Yeung’s work, these two pieces explore the tension between the individual and the group, public and private, intimacy and alienation, and our need for both personal space and human contact. 

All these concepts inform Yeung’s show at Gasworks in London. The idea for the exhibition came about while Yeung was taking part in an artist residency at the Delfina Foundation in London for a few months in early 2022. While living in the city, Yeung heard about a tree on Hampstead Heath colloquially known as the “fuck tree.” For more than a century, Hampstead Heath has been one of the world’s best-known gay cruising grounds. The tree, which grows horizontally before stretching skywards, is so distinctive that it has become a landmark at which men can meet for a tryst. Sections of the tree have endured so much human touch that they have been buffed smooth. 

Yeung has spent the past decade using plants to illustrate social dynamics, and here was a tree that had been physically shaped by human relationships. Intrigued, he visited it one night with a friend. “The first time I was so panicked. It was cold and it was shaking,” he says. “It was dark, but you could still see some things from the light of the moon. And your other senses got so much stronger, like your hearing and sense of smell. When someone passed by, you could smell them, whether they’d use deodorant or perfume. I could even recognise the brand of deodorant.”   

He returned for research multiple times over the past few months, interviewing men who were cruising and taking photographs of the tree and surrounding woodland. Yeung was interested in the tree as a site of queer desire, but the more research he did the more he realised the tree provided an opportunity to explore universal ideas, too. 

“My exhibition is not really about cruising,” says Yeung. “It’s about interactions between people. I’ve always been interested in unspoken interactions. How do we communicate without sight? Without talking?” Questions Yeung had about cruising culture quickly spiralled into larger queries that swirled in his mind as made works for the show. How do the men convey desire or rejection without speaking? What unspoken signals do all of us send every day? Does cruising affect other people who use the park? And doesn’t all human behaviour affect others, either for better or worse? What are the unspoken rules that govern cruising – and by extension, what are the unspoken rules that govern all human interactions, all the time? 

The centrepiece of Yeung’s show at Gasworks is a 2.5-metre-long cast of a section of the tree. Yeung has made the cast from a specially formulated soap that contains a mixture of wood powders, moss powder and essential oils to mimic the smell of a woodland. It will be exhibited in a dark room in the hope that visitors’ sense of smell will be sharpened in the gloom, just as Yeung’s was on his first visit to Hampstead Heath. 

Aside from the smell it creates, there were other reasons that Yeung chose to make the cast from soap. One was that the tree has been physically changed by human hands, like soap is. There’s also a tactility to soap that might spark some visitors’ curiosity, like the tree did when Yeung first saw it – he wanted to reach out and touch it. “I’m not asking people to touch the installation, I’m not promoting touching it, but I expect some people will touch it,” he says.

Also, like soap, the real-life tree will one day disappear completely. “The tree is a historical place, it’s like a monument,” says Yeung. “But it’s not a stone sculpture that will stay there forever.” By 3D scanning part of the tree to make his cast, Yeung has preserved at least some of it for perpetuity. “In my previous work I haven’t worked a lot with technology. My art is about objects – it’s very physical, not digital. This was the first time I thought, ‘I want to 3D scan it. I want to have the tree become a file that people can access even if the tree is not there anymore.’” 

As Yeung was developing the exhibition, which also included a wall painting and a movement-activated fountain, he was concerned that his focus on the tree would make the exhibition too tied to London. “I was stressed because this is not only an exhibition for Gasworks – it’s also travelling to Para Site and the Aranya Art Centre. I was thinking about how this work can translate in other cultures,” says Yeung. “It’s been challenging, but now I don’t think the exhibition is about the tree itself. It’s about desire.” In the exhibition, Yeung reveals that human desires shape the physical world, whether we intend it to or not. “That’s the most interesting thing for me: how our emotional desires become physical. [How they] change in form from mental to physical.” 

While Yeung was finalising the details of his Gasworks exhibition, news broke that he would be representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in 2024. “People keep saying to me, ‘Congratulations!’ but I haven’t made the show yet,” says Yeung. “There are so many artists in Hong Kong who deserve to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, so I was very surprised to be picked. It’s a huge responsibility. But for me as an artist, it’s a great platform to show who I am – and to show what a Hong Kong artist can do.”

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